By Brian Jewell
ere it not for the ambitions of one visionary chocolatier, Hershey, Pennsylvania, might simply be a sleepy spot in the middle of farmland.
Rarely does the credit for a city’s success as a tourism destination belong to one man. And yet throughout his namesake town, museums, attractions and hotels all point to the legacy of Milton Hershey, an entrepreneur who created some of America’s favorite treats and one of Pennsylvania’s sweetest destinations.
It would be easy to think that Hershey is primarily a chocolate-lover’s getaway, and there is plenty of opportunity to learn about and taste Hershey’s signature products all around town. But the city also tells a great story of innovation, vision and philanthropy. Take a group to visit Hershey, and they’ll be inspired by the story of Milton Hershey and the empire that he created out of sugar and cocoa beans.
In many ways, Hershey’s life plays out like a textbook American success story. Hershey was born in 1857 to a Mennonite on a farm near the small Pennsylvania community of Derry Church. He only completed the fourth grade but spent a four-year apprenticeship with a candy-maker in Lancaster.
Following the apprenticeship, Hershey moved to Philadelphia to establish his own candy-making business. It failed. He moved to Chicago and tried again; that business failed, too, as did the third operation that he opened later in New York. Eventually, Hershey returned to Lancaster in 1883, where he established the Lancaster Caramel Company, his first successful candy business.
Ten years later, while attending the World’s Columbian Exposition, Hershey encountered some new German chocolate-making machinery and was instantly intrigued. He bought the equipment and began adding chocolate to his company’s product line. In 1900, he sold the caramel business to concentrate on his chocolate and built a new factory in his native Derry Church, where he could quickly get the fresh milk need for his chocolate from area farmers.
That milk would become the cornerstone of Hershey’s chocolate empire. At that time, milk chocolate was made only by the Swiss and was considered a luxury product. But Hershey changed all that. By 1903, he had created a formula for milk chocolate that could be manufactured for the American masses. That same year, he began construction on what would become the world’s largest chocolate factory.
The success and wealth that followed allowed Hershey to build a “model town” around his factory, including a park that later grew an amusement hot spot. During the Great Depression, Hershey created the Great Building Campaign to create jobs, which brought structures like the elegant Hotel Hershey to the city.
Today, the town that Hershey built near Derry Church is named in his honor and still bears his fingerprints.
“There’s a trolley that groups can go on,” said Rachel Dinbokowitz, public relations specialist for Hershey Entertainment and Resorts. “It drives you around the town of Hershey; you can see where Milton Hershey grew up and then stop and see the mansion that he built later in life.”
Visitors can learn many of the fascinating details of Hershey’s life and career at the Hershey Story, a museum experience focusing on the man, the company and the town.
“Visitors go through all the different stages,” Dinbokowitz said. “You can learn about him growing up and his failures before he created Hershey’s chocolate. You see the power of promotion and learn about the advertising that they’ve done.”
In addition to static exhibits, the Hershey Story has a number of interactive experiences. Groups can visit the Chocolate Lab, where instructors give a 45-minute workshop in chocolate-making and guide participants in creating their own confections. And the Countries of Origin at the museum’s Cafe Zooka allows visitors to sample warm drinking chocolate from exotic locales such as Indonesia, Africa and South America.
Museum visitors also learn about the Hershey School, an institution Hershey funded with his estate when he died. The school was established to educate orphans and today also accepts children from underprivileged backgrounds.
“They provide housing, clothing, food and a great education,” Dinbokowitz said. “They have the best of the best at this school. You can actually go tour Founder’s Hall at the Milton Hershey School and learn about that legacy.”